Nostalgia for 1980s through 1990s pop culture seems to have crept into every single mass medium. Musicians have embraced the sounds of the synthpop and alternative scenes at the time, as well as some of the easy listening of the time. Programs like “Stranger Things” and movies like “Drive” were written, shot and directed to be an ode to not only films of the time but also the way people interacted with each other in the 80s. While I could delve into the reasons behind the mass appeal of this recent trend, I’m more interested in mapping out the trend’s evolution, starting with a very strange and forward-thinking music scene: Vaporwave.
Vaporwave began largely as a joke, ironically enough. In mid-2010, electronic artist Daniel Lopatin released an album of chopped-and-screwed samples of pop from the 60s to the 80s entitled “Chuck Person’s eccojams Vol. 1.” The songs were mostly just fragmented loops of loosely altered pop tunes from a bygone yet longed for era and Lopatin said himself that the album was meant to be taken as a simple gag. However, other artists capitalized on this method of music production, most notably Vektroid who, under the name Macintosh Plus, released her album “Floral Shoppe” in late 2011. The album featured exclusively 70s and 80s pop and easy listening samples, dashed with reverb and slowed down to produce an uneasy yet engaging effect. These two albums are considered the two primary building blocks of the genre, setting the stage for a style of music that critiqued modern capitalism by bastardizing its soundtrack.
Criticisms of the burgeoning genre were swift, such as the argument that anybody could sit down at their computer and lazily repurpose a pop song for their own use. However, this proved to be a key appeal of the genre, and for that reason it is considered something of a digital punk movement—one that most anybody can be involved with and pokes fun at consumer capitalism and the products it has given us. The genre has gone through several stylistic alterations, with artists such as Saint Pepsi and Yung Bae delivering more funk-inspired material, Blank Banshee and Vaperror adding trap-style beats to their samples, and 2814 focusing on ambient music and dystopian, melancholy themes.
The art surrounding these artists’ releases has most surely carried into our embrace of 80s and 90s culture. Early releases explored primitive digital art, Windows 95 graphics and retro video game stills as well as pastel colors and coastal cityscapes. All of these components can be found in many of the more mainstream music releases we see today, while Vaporwave itself continues to evolve. Early Vaporwave art has also started to appear on clothing, with many clothing companies coming out with nostalgic lines of tops and hats. That even includes the Windows 95 logo, of all things. This “style” of art, so to speak, never had a fully realized name and has since been described as “aesthetic,” but stylized as ‘“A E S T H E T I C.” Since the emergence of Vaporwave, Google searches of the word “aesthetic” have increased tenfold.
The more emotionally potent themes that Vaporwave taps into have also carried into our current 80s and 90s obsession. Artists like Hong Kong Express and t e l e p a t h have focused on the ambient side of the genre and have made a name for themselves doing so. Their collaborative effort “Birth of a New Day,” released under the name “2814,” is regarded as the new essential Vaporwave record. Their music is often intended as an escape into the neon haze of east Asian cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo and an exploration into the melancholia that our ultra-industrialized world has produced. The album covers usually depict a dark Asian cityscape with Japanese characters. This exploration of sadness, a lack of fulfillment in a postmodern world, paired with art that clearly mirrors that of “Blade Runner,” has been a welcome source of comfort for millennials, many of whom are suffering from extreme anxiety and depression, and wish to escape their current state of affairs.
Vaporwave predated many of the stylistic choices of our current rush of pop culture nostalgia. While the music genre, art movement or aesthetic may not have directly influenced the powers that be that are creating this mainstream content, it certainly has helped in warming certain groups of people up to the current trend, which, along with Vaporwave, only seems to keep getting stronger. Now all we need is for the mainstream to learn how to work with cassette tapes, and then cassettes will be back.
Oh, wait; Vaporwave fans have done that as well.
Gabe Sagherian is a student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at GS889554@wcupa.edu.